DENVER — Richard Thompson, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Denver, prays the new privately-funded Catholic school voucher program may inspire a paradigm shift in Catholic education.

“I would like to see a theology of grace, rather than a theology of scarcity,” Thompson said. “The problem in Catholic education today is that, because resources are scarce, we’re all scrapping for those resources and defending our own turf instead of thinking of ways to increase the overall size of the resource base and ways to help each other out.”

On June 8, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput announced a program in which 250 economically disadvantaged children would be given vouchers to pay nearly 100% of tuition at any of 33 of his 39 Catholic schools with enrollments below 90% capacity. The program, guaranteed to continue for at least the next four years, is paid for by the Seeds of Hope Charitable Trust — a partnership between the Archdiocese of Denver, businesses and community leaders.

“The archdiocese is committed to making Catholic elementary and secondary education available, accessible and affordable to as many parents and their children as possible,” Archbishop Chaput said. “This is part of our responsibility as a community of Catholic faith.”

Thompson said the program will primarily help inner-city, ethnic minorities but is open to all families with incomes that fall within 125% of the range established by the federal government’s reduced and free lunch program.

The vouchers came as good news to administrators and supporters of Denver’s Loyola Elementary School, which serves a student population that’s 90% black. Donna Auguste, a Catholic philanthropist who has given millions of dollars to assisting the poor, said Catholic education is the best hope for underprivileged minority children.

“The vouchers will create opportunities for families to help start their children in a sequence of Catholic education,” said Auguste, taking time out from painting walls at Loyola School. “Students who have a sequence of Catholic education have a strong foundation of solid academics and spirituality.”

Auguste, who was a top engineer/inventor for Apple Computer before starting her own successful software firm, grew up poor and was able to attend Catholic schools only because of outside financial assistance.

“Without that help, my sisters and I would not have had a Catholic education and I probably would not be where I am today,” Auguste said. “When we get children into Catholic schools, we make a huge difference in the direction their lives will take.”

Formed in Faith

More than half the population of the Archdiocese of Denver is Hispanic, and Thompson said most of the applications for the voucher program have been filled out in Spanish.

“This will be a tremendous help not only to families and children, but to some of our predominantly minority inner-city schools,” Thompson said. “St. Rose of Lima School (which is mostly Hispanic) will bring in 50 additional students. Annunciation School has a 100% minority enrollment, and obviously this will help out there, as well as in a lot of our other school serving inner-city populations.”

Thompson said he has identified 78 other private Catholic school voucher programs in the United States, but none compare to Denver’s.

“What makes this unique is the fact that a voucher will pay almost the entire cost of tuition,” Thompson said. “Our tuition averages $3,200 a year, and these vouchers go up to $3,000. Most of the other programs I’ve researched offer vouchers worth anywhere from $200 to $1,000, which doesn’t help a family that can’t just go out and come up with the remaining thousands of dollars to pay tuition.”

Though Catholic schools have long been considered academically superior to inner-city public schools, Thompson said the applicants for Denver’s vouchers have shown themselves mostly concerned with religious education.

“We have a little form on there asking about their interest in the program, and almost without exception the answers have to do with wanting the child or children formed in the faith,” Thompson said. “A lot of the applicants are single parents or grandparents raising their grandchildren.”

One parent of a kindergartner wrote, translated from Spanish: “I would like my daughter to study in a Catholic school because of the academic level and the spiritual education and the reinforcement of our religion, besides what we teach her.”

Denver’s archdiocesan school system has seen declining enrollment for the past five years, and the voucher program will fill 10% of the 2,500 vacant classroom seats. Applicants have ranged in family size from two to eight children, and have reported annual incomes of $400 to $65,950.

“A few years ago, Colorado passed a tax-based private school tuition voucher program,” Thompson said. “It was overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court, mainly because it didn’t allow enough oversight by public schools. With this program, we don’t have to worry about oversight from public schools.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from

Boulder, Colorado.